By Doc Searls

We need new words.

Without them, we can't really describe our new products. Or our new companies. Or our new missions in life. Or hell, even our old ones.

For lack of new words, or the imagination to create some, Apple calls Newton a "personal digital assistant." SCO calls its Open Desktop "the integrated open systems environment."

In both cases, the absence of working nouns invited TechnoLatin substitutes. But even the presence of working nouns doesn't keep us from saying "data management solution" when we mean "disk drive" and "open systems platform" when we mean "network."

Why do we do this?

One reason is herd mentality. TechnoLatin satisfies the main appeal of slang, which is a sense of belonging. "Distributed platform environment" does for technology marketers what "I'm all, like, y'know ..." does for teenagers.

Another reason is obfuscation -- what Garrison Keillor calls "the preacher's art of talking until you think of what to say." TechnoLatin helps us sound like we know what we're talking about, even when we don't. We might call this "making a protocol link at the jargon layer."

But there are two bigger reasons, both much more deeply rooted.

The first is science, which is at the core of the computer business. Science, of course, lives by precision. Even a "soft" science like medicine requires extremely precise language; because one wrong syllable might kill somebody. But outside computing's purely scientific provinces, the tolerance for error is large. Yet there persists an urge to at least sound scientific. So we speak of "enhanced productivity solutions" and "vendor-independent applications environments" as if they were chemical formulas.

The second is at the base of modern English, which is largely German. From its Saxon roots English grows much of its vocabulary and structure, as well as a belief that the world can be described precisely by strings of nouns. This works with German nouns, which latch together like freight cars, forming trains of letters that can run wider than a page. These might be complicated, but they do the job. You can say Haustürschlüssel (house-door-key) or Lebensversicherungsgesellschaft (life insurance company) or Speicherverwaltungssystem (memory management system), and everybody knows exactly what you mean. Unfortunately, English also has Latin, Norse and Romance roots, none of which welcome the compounding of nouns. As a result, English speakers with scientific purposes retain the will to compound nouns, but not the means. "Demand-compatible resource implementation" fails as both a German descendant and an English phrase.

One great advantage of modern English, however, is that it welcomes new words, and fresh uses for old ones. Perhaps this is why English has gobbled up so many words from other languages -- and why it exports so many new words (along with new computer products) to the rest of the world. Even Germans would rather say "cursor" than Bildeschirmanzeiger ("picture screen indicator").

The word-creating power of English has created many arcane vocabularies. Architects speak of soffits, geologists of synclines, and liturgists of homiletics . The word field means something specific yet different to the photographer, the electrical engineer and the football coach. The computer business, however, still lacks a good working vocabulary.

How can we create one? Lots of ways.

We can give new meanings to old words, as we do with "bug," "slot," "window," "file," "icon," "desktop," "morph," "font" and "virus." We can use acronyms, as we do with CAD, RAM, FIFO, and WYSIWYG. We can assemble whole new words out of meaningful fractions, as with "pixel" and "floptical."

We can name computers after their authors, in the manner of hats. The Derby, Stetson, Homburg, Fez and Fedora might find computing equivalents in the Watson, the Wozniac and the Tesler. In fact, if Apple's Newton finally succeeds, its name might, like Kleenex, Escalator, Rollerblade and Walkman, become the generic noun for everything that resembles it (testing the limits of copyright law in the process). In fact, the TechnoLatin nature of "personal digital assistant" increases the likelihood. Remember how the Walkman's competitors tried to call themselves "personal stereo systems" and such? A Walkman® is now a walkman, whether Sony likes it or not.

The best way to create new words, however, is suggested by Rich Hall, the former Saturday Night Live performer and author of the near-forgotten Sniglet books. Hall defines a "sniglet" as "any word that doesn't appear in the dictionary, but should." Examples include "erdu" (the little crumbs of pink-gray waste left by an eraser), "fenderberg" (the glacial deposits that form inside a car's fender during snowstorms), "glackett" (the noisy ball in a spray-paint can), and "snaf" (the perforated pin-drive strips on continuous printer paper). Successful real-life sniglets are "grunge," "nerd," "geek," "kluge" and "rap."

There are plenty of words that don't appear in the computer industry dictionary, but should. This makes sniglets not only a good idea, but a commercial opportunity.

Don't laugh. Somebody once said "he who owns the language owns the market." Words are living things, and the rules of Darwin do apply.

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